Entering the “bat cave” that is Don Hertzfeldt’s private animation studio, one cannot help but be overwhelmed. Dusty, stuffy, and chaotically “organized,” it’s difficult to fathom that this two-room rental has spawned such classic shorts as Billy’s Balloon, The Meaning of Life, and the Oscar nominated Rejected. Then again, looking at Hertzfeldt himself-a pale, rumpled, and endearingly awkward 32-year-old who doesn’t look a day over 25-it’s hard to imagine that he’s even the man behind it all.
A UCSB grad, Santa Barbara resident,, filmmaker, and admitted perfectionist, Hertzfeldt has spent the last 10 years of his career in this rundown studio of sorts. Sure, he lays claim to a Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking from Sundance and has scored a nod from Cannes, but Hertzfeldt is not above a bargain. Tucked off the street in a literally top secret location (no, seriously, he doesn’t want anyone to know where he works), the building provides a cheap and functional home for Hertzfeldt’s unending list of projects. It also houses one of less than 100 functioning 35mm Richardson camera stands in the world.
Hertzfeldt’s weapon of choice since 1999, the Richardson is a beast of a device. Between its suspended camera, attached table, and big steel and bolt appendages, it’s no wonder the guy isn’t budging. Currently, the Richardson is littered with tiny scraps of black construction paper and still photos-a sign of Hertzfeldt’s current goings-on. As he informs me later over dinner, the animator has literally just wrapped production and fine-tuning on the follow-up short to 2006’s Sundance winning Everything Will Be OK. The film, titled I am so proud of you, will be the second in an as-yet-to-be-finished trilogy starring Bill, Hertzfeldt’s top-hat-wearing, possibly disease-stricken stick man.
“I started the second one right after I finished the first,” Hertzfeldt explained in between bites. “It’s easily the most revamped and rewritten stuff I’ve worked on : [But] I don’t know when the last time was I thought of [Bill] as a stick figure. They’re just characters now.”
Characters that Hertzfeldt has gotten mighty close to. Much like Everything, I am so proud of you took nearly two years to complete. And, as he admits, two years is a long time to be working by yourself in a tiny room with poor ventilation. “But the way I work, there’s never a point in the production when you’re done,” Hertzfeldt explained. “No matter how much time [I have] and how much I work, things are always last minute : We just finished [the new film] last week. It’s premiering at two film festivals in Canada next week-No, tomorrow’s Wednesday. This week-it’s premiering this week.” The hilarity of the situation is not lost on me. Hertzfeldt has quite obviously been scurrying to get this film done-and up to his extremely high cinematic standards-before the close of awards season. And considering the glowing critical reception of Everything Will be OK two years prior, it seems like a smart move.
Since his 2000 Oscar nod for Rejected, Hertzfeldt has submitted a film to the Academy every year. “We submitted [Rejected] as a joke,” he confessed. “We thought, ‘Let’s just make them watch it, make them sit through it.’ When it got nominated it was like, ‘Joke’s on us, I guess.’ I’ve joined the Academy since. They’re brutal. They heckle, they shout : And over the years I’ve been a member, I still have no idea what they like.”
Numerous times throughout our talk discussion shifts to the current state of the animation industry. And it’s this conversation that finds Hertzfeldt openly expressing exactly what he doesn’t like. “Studio animation is where good animation goes to die,” he deadpanned. “They’re written by committee and set up to sell toys. : At some point, photorealism and this other stuff became the Holy Grail. It’s the least imaginative thing in animation. I can see it being a huge hard-on for the computer geeks, but it’s just turning into live action in a way.
“I mean, look at Charlie Brown,” Hertzfeldt continued adamantly. “He’s a body, a big circle for a head, and two circles for eyes : But the simpler a character is, the more chance the audience has to relate to it. : [In these new films], there’s no substance for me to personally connect to.”
The Charlie Brown reference is a fitting one. Just an hour earlier, Herztfeldt had shared that his beloved antique camera stand had once helped bring Charles M. Schulz’s beloved Peanuts to life. But it’s his heartfelt opinions on character development that ring truest. Despite his medium of choice, Hertzfeldt admits to enjoying and being the most proud of his writing and music scoring work. A visionary in his own right, Hertzfeldt’s work excels at capturing the human condition.
In Everything Will Be OK, Hertzfeldt’s Bill wanders through life much like any Average Joe. Through tiny windows (which Hertzfeldt handcrafted by affixing pieces of black construction paper to his camera lens) the viewer watches Bill’s mundane thoughts and humorous actions. But slowly the focus shifts. We learn that Bill suffers from a numbing mental disorder that brings with it dark thoughts and a horrifying struggle with what is imagined and what is reality. The story is one that resonates deeply, providing a bizarre but truthful look inside the mind of the mentally disturbed. It’s heavy stuff artfully crafted, which is something Hertzfeldt wholeheartedly acknowledges.
“Second chapters are kind of darker by nature,” he hinted in regard to I am so proud of you. “[But] if you see all three of these back to back, your brain is going to melt. : I think it’s really important for all three to stand on their own as their own movies. I think the second succeeded in that, but there’s definitely a thread that runs through them all.”
Much like the street address of his creation station, Hertzfeldt is keeping the details about I am so proud of you under wraps. In fact, he’s happier to dish on his fallout with The Animation Show (a touring festival he co-curated with Beavis and Butthead creator Mike Judge), his currently homeless animated miniseries, and an alleged “weird comic book thing” he is tooling with. “It’s a question of what I’m going to focus on next,” Hertzfeldt explained. “Usually, the next project is already in the works when I finish the one before : I’ll always kind of want that outlet.”
Following our meeting, Hertzfeldt would next be flying to San Fran for a couple of days of R&R before returning to Santa Barbara, packing his things, and heading out on a two-month, 15-city cross-country promotion tour. Following each one-night-only screening, Hertzfeldt will hit the stage for an interview and audience Q&A session that he’s promising will be plenty embarrassing. The tour kicks off right here at Hertzfeldt’s alma mater, opening the fall 2008 season of Magic Lantern screenings in Isla Vista Theater this Friday, September 26.
Don Hertzfeldt’s I am so proud of you opens the fall 2008 Magic Lantern film series at Isla Vista Theater on Friday, September 26, at 8 p.m. Admission is $5.